Whither Plaid Cymru: Wales discovers its political sovereignty

John Osmond questions whether Plaid wishes to be a party of government

A virtue of Alan Sandry’s new book Plaid Cymru – An ideological analysis is that it provides part of the back-story to the current dilemmas facing the party and the general muddle it finds itself in. There is an irony that of all the parties, Plaid Cymru has most struggled to come to terms with devolution. One would have thought that the entirely new political landscape that came with the National Assembly would have presented the party that had fought for it for so long with an advantage over its competitors.

The Party of Wales

This is the second of a week-long series. Tomorrow Craig McAngus says Plaid must decide whether it wishes to become a 15+ party or stay in its comfort zone of winning between 10 and 15 seats.

And to some extent it certainly helped. This was because for the first time Plaid Cymru could fight on a level playing field with the other parties. Westminster elections are largely about electing a Prime Minister to govern the United Kingdom, a contest in which, by its very nature, Plaid Cymru cannot take part. On the other hand, Assembly elections are about electing a government of Wales and Plaid Cymru has at least a chance of participating in that prospect.

But therein lies the rub. If it is to be a party of government Plaid Cymru must have a programme for government. It needs a raft of practical policies that can bring tangible benefits in the immediate future. Such policies invariably entail spending limited budgets and making hard choices between priorities. The deals and compromises involved are the humdrum everyday stuff of ordinary political life, constantly testing a party’s integrity, coherence and vision.

Is Plaid Cymru that kind of party? For three-quarters of a century its main motivation was the creation of a national democratic institution rather than thinking about what it might actually do with one when it was up and running. The late Phil Williams, who features a great deal in Alan Sandry’s book, made a related point when the National Assembly had already been in existence for four years. As he put it in his last piece of writing The Psychology of Distance (IWA, 2003):

“Within the Party of Wales there is a recurring debate as to whether an essential prerequisite for self-government is that Plaid Cymru replaces the Labour party as the mainstream dominant party in Wales. Alternatively, is it possible for a single-minded and uncompromising Plaid Cymru to create the conditions whereby the other parties deliver self-government, albeit step-by-step and with some reluctance?”

Eight years and two Assembly terms later Plaid Cymru is close to choosing between these alternatives if, indeed, it has not already done so. Emphatically, it seems to me, it wishes to be a party of government and thereby have a dominant role in Welsh political life, leading the nation to ever greater fulfillment in terms of self-government.

Of course, that is easier said than done and Sandry’s book tells you why. For such a party needs a cohesive philosophical outlook, one that can guide it in constructing a political programme and making difficult choices between priorities as they arise. Relying on the political theorist Michael Freedon, Sandry argues that the Conservative, Liberal and Labour traditions all offer a core set of values out of which such a position can be constructed.

On the other hand, a nationalist party whose main objective is greater autonomy for its country does not find such a set of values readily to hand. Rather, it can be likened to having a house, albeit built on strong foundations, but which it can fill with whatever ideological baggage it chooses – often drawing on ideas from other political traditions. In Plaid Cymru’s case it has an eclectic mixture of ideas and policies drawn mainly from those of the Liberals’ individualistic tendency and Labour’s collective one.

Up to a point this is a useful way of understanding the challenges facing Plaid Cymru. However, Sandry’s reliance – I think over-reliance – on Freedon’s analysis complicates the picture unnecessarily and, moreover, misses an essential dynamic in the relationship between the Welsh political parties. For rather than Plaid Cymru cherry picking bits of its ideology from other political traditions, for most of its history it has been enveloped in a close, symbiotic embrace with first the Liberals and then, and for much longer, Labour. Indeed, the psychological pathology involved in these relationships was closely connected with what was Wales’s colonial position in relation to England.

Only now, it seems to me, after a decade of domestic self-government, is Plaid Cymru beginning to shake itself free of what was essentially a dependency relationship with first the Liberals and then Labour. Sandry doesn’t get close to analysing this. But it is much more fundamental to understanding where Plaid Cymru as a party now stands than worrying about the sources of the ideological stances it is taking in various directions.

Moreover, and this also demonstrates the dizzying speed with which Welsh politics is developing, because much of the research and writing of this book was undertaken more than five years ago, it misses an extraordinary dynamic that is propelling contemporary events. This is the discovery by the people of Wales, or at least by their elected representatives, of their political sovereignty. This has been prompted by the operation of the National Assembly over a decade, leading to the success of last year’s referendum on primary law making powers. In turn this led to the first legislative programme now being embarked upon by the significantly re-named Welsh Government.

Before too long Welsh sovereignty will be made legal, so to speak, with the creation of a Welsh jurisdiction. This will be necessary because of the separate laws and distinctive legal system that are being created. Then the notion of independence around these structures will begin to make common sense in a way that has been impossible for most of Plaid Cymru’s existence.

As Sandry discusses at some length, the party’s founder Saunders Lewis eschewed independence as an immoral or, rather, amoral concept for the Welsh nation. Instead, he argued, Wales should be seek ‘freedom’ in an inter-dependent world and especially the European milieu.

However, in the 21st Century Wales is now acquiring sovereignty in the exercise of the rule of law over its own territory. In turn this makes it necessary for it to seek independence in order to share its sovereignty with the rest of the British Isles and the wider European Union. This is a moral imperative that trumps the one enunciated by Saunders Lewis in his lecture The Principles of Nationalism delivered to Plaid Cymru’s inaugural summer school in 1926.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA. This article first appeared in the November 2011 issue of Planet magazine.

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